We live in a messed up, hurting world.
Today is Remembrance Sunday on which we give thanks for those who gave their lives for the peace that we have enjoyed for the past 60 years; we remember the horror of war – the pointless loss of innocent lives; we pray for those who live with the ongoing reality of violent conflict; and we strive for greater peace and freedom.
In Bristol, 19,240 shrouded figurines were laid out in memory of the British soldiers who were killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, 1st July 1916.
100 years later: from 9/11 to 11/9
As we commemorate 100 years from the Battle of the Somme, it is patently clear that we continue to live in a messed up, broken world. We just need to think of the events of this week with the US election; or the Brexit vote just 5 months ago; or the terrible reality of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and all the ongoing terrorism since; or the living reality of the conflicts in Syria and elsewhere.
We seem to be surrounded by violence, intolerance, bigotry and greed: if anything such values seem to be more prominent, and it is easy to lose hope and sink into despondency.
The book of the prophet Malachi is the last book in the Old Testament. It was written around the time of Nehemiah and the re-settlement of Jerusalem after the exile.
See, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch (Malachi 4:1)
This makes it a really hard book to get to grips with and to reconcile with our understanding of God and the reality of the world we live in. It comes across as a book that incites religious bigotry and division.
A divided world
We like things to be simple, to make sense according to our sense of right and wrong. And so we tend to divide the world into two groups: the righteous and the evildoers; those who are in God’s kingdom and those who are not. And we like to believe that God loves the first group, but hates the others; that God will bless the righteous, but the evildoers will be destroyed.
That was perhaps how the Israelites saw things, and we can read Malachi from that perspective:
‘I have loved you,’ says the Lord. ‘Yet I have loved Jacob but I have hated Esau; I have made his hill country a desolation and his heritage a desert for jackals.’ (Malachi 1:2-3)
We can read Malachi in that light – divide the world into those who are good and those who are evil; those who are in the kingdom and those who are out.
There are a number of problems with that:
- It doesn’t match reality. It is not the evil who suffer for their violence and greed, all too often it is their innocent victims: the young men sent to the trenches of WWI; the innocent civilians in Coventry, Dresden, or Hiroshima; the millions of Jews sent to the gas chambers; the families of those killed in action in Afghanistan or Iraq; the millions of refugees fleeing inconceivable horrors under Islamic State…
- Rather than leading to peace, it exacerbates the violence that separates. It is the crusader mentality that prompted those in the middle ages to march out against the infidels, and closer to home, was used by George Bush and Tony Blair to justify military action in Iraq – ‘we are right and God is on our side’. Donald Trump and his rhetoric in the election campaign; the racism that we saw in this country post-Brexit
- It infiltrates our churches so that we become exclusive and judgmental. Think about how we, as a church treat people who don’t necessarily conform to our beliefs or behaviour: Muslims, gay people…
- It blinds us to the reality that we are just as much to blame.
Are we really that different from those who perpetrate violence and injustice? We like to portray them as evildoers: child abusers, wife batterers, paedophiles, corrupt bankers and stock brokers, bigoted white Americans or Daily Mail readers… The reality may be that we are not that different.
An unfolding word: Re-reading Malachi in a different light
Psalm 119 gives a different perspective on how we can read the words of the prophet Malachi:
The unfolding of your words gives light (Psalm 119:130)
Perhaps, then, a crucial part of challenging religious and any other bigotry is being prepared to have our own prejudices and preconceptions challenged.
So perhaps, in the spirit of this ‘unfolding’ of God’s word, what we need to do is re-read Malachi, in a different light: in the light of Jesus, the Messiah, the sun of righteousness who has risen with healing in his wings; the one who came, not to build walls, but to break down the dividing wall of hostility that separates people; the Prince of Peace, who came to overcome violence and evil, not with yet more force and power, or with tactics of shock and awe, but in humility, non-violence and grace.
Perhaps we need to see the prophecy of Malachi, not so much as a condemnation of those who are different, the evildoers, those who are not in God’s kingdom, but rather as a reflection of the cry of God’s heart: God’s longing for justice and healing; God’s longing for all to know that they are loved and accepted; and God’s longing for all to accept the cleansing and healing that he offers.
If we do that, we will find that most of the words of judgment spoken in the book of Malachi are, in fact, spoken against those who are ‘in’: the people of Israel, God’s chosen people; and particularly against those who claimed to be religious.
A message of hope: the sun of righteousness
We will find also that it is a message of hope: of the sun of righteousness coming with healing on its wings – extending healing to all those who are abused, persecuted or oppressed; those who are hurt by the violence and greed of this broken world; those hurt by the judgments of us who claim to be part of God’s kingdom.
This is not some soft, wishy-washy message of bland acceptance, ignoring the reality of injustice, violence and greed that is in each one of us. God will bring judgment, and it will be like a fire. But it will be like the fire that burns up chaff and stubble in a harvested field, or like the refiner’s fire that burns up impurities in silver or gold. The farmer will only burn up the chaff and stubble in a field that he cares for, the refiner will only put precious metals in the fire. It is not a fire of torment or destruction, it is a purifying fire and one that leads to justice, to healing, to peace, to joy.
So, if the prophet Malachi were to come to our churches today, what do you think he might see? What might he be challenging us to? Where might he be confronting some of our bigotry, complacency or preconceptions?